Sunday, May 24, 2009

Santiago Feria and Pulpo Gallego

Another busy week comes to an end. After two set-backs when the battery in my laptop ran out of juice twice, I've managed a full 24 hour run through of the latest code and this allows me to get onto the next stage of a current project.

This week the fair has come to Santiago and the big-wheel in the central park, the Alameda, can be seen from everywhere in the city. After a goodbye dinner with some Korean friends we headed there on Thursday evening and took a stroll around the park with the hoardes of fair-goers, the smell of freshly fried churros and candy-floss mixing with the petrol smells from the engines driving the rides and the sounds of screaming kids. From the top of the big wheel you get a stunning view of the Cathedral, although the wheel spins at a startling speed, giving little time to enjoy the view.

The dynamism at the fair also gave a good chance to try out some rather tricky shots of people in the rather unevenly lit situation. This one of a good friend, and fellow photography enthusiast came as an unusual but rather pleasing shot:
Yani at the fair
After this the group went off to see a concert (one of many this week) given by one of Spain's top female pop singers. I might have gone had it not been for the fact that I simply can't stand Spanish popular music. Other Spanish music I can enjoy a great deal, but the pop which is played constantly on the radios in the cafes I frequent drives me crazy - the melodramatic female voices and lyrics grating on me like fingernails down a blackboard. So, I ducked out early and headed home.

Friday saw another first when my US couchsurfer suggested we try and get hold of an octopus to cook, Galician style. An hour of boiling the beast later and we had a reasonable rendition of the most popular dish in this region of Spain, together with pimientos de Padrón and a revuelto of asparagus and mushrooms. Together with guests from Columbia, South Africa, Russia, and another American, we ended up with a pretty successful meal though I now realise how subtle the timing of octopus is.
pulpo prior

pulpo half way through
Today I've spent back in the cafe working on code, but have a fantastic meal promised tonight by a Taiwanese couchsurfer who is here with his Japanese friend. Having taken a two year cooking course, this should be quite a meal, and together with the Latvian and Swede due to arrive here some time tonight, it looks like being another thoroughly international evening.

Anyway, this leaves me with some more time to continue these code wars, so I should get on....

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Atmospheric optics and astrophotography links of the day

I'm under mountains of coding these days and the highs and lows that this brings my life seem to change from day to day. Luckily today was an overall positive one, meaning that the number of bugs removed appears to be greater than the number of bugs 'implemented'. The current problem is getting a little tiresome though and it's getting to the point that I've spent much more of the last few weeks doing programing than feeling like I was doing physics. Still, it comes with the territory and I enjoy it overall.

While I'm mulling over why my the 1s and 0s are not sitting comfortably in my current code I thought I'd put up a couple of quick links here from eye-catching sources of the last couple of days.

First and foremost is Toomanytribbles who caught a great solar halo display over Athens. This can be seen on the atmospheric optics photo of the day site today. Toomanytribbles sent the pictures to me to identify first, and I'm pleased that my answers agreed with those of Les, the real expert, over at Atoptics. You can find the full explanation over on the OPOD link above.

The pictures here show the circumscribed arc with a parhelic circle, the fainter white circle at the top of the second picture.

unweaving the ice crystal halo:  137/365

parhelic halo

While I'm about it I should advertise a couple of her other photos. Toomanytribbles has been posting a photo a day in a project, simply named 365 - a photo a day for a year. These can be seen in her photostream and on her blog. I've seen her photos change incredibly over the last couple of years and the work she is producing now is simply outstanding. A lot of her work involves very short degree of freedom and creative bokeh and she has been taking advantage of these techniques over the last few days in photos with her new toy. Sometimes the simplest objects make for the most stunning photos. Click on the photos to see more.

athens circle, athens square

calatrava fire and ice:  134/365

In addition to these great photos I thought I'd post up a video which I first saw at the Bad Astronomer's blog. A simply spellbinding still-photo animation of the emergence of the milky way onto the desert sky. This is not to be missed.

Galactic Center of Milky Way Rises over Texas Star Party from William Castleman on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Weekend exodus

It's been an enjoyable but busy week. I've spent many hours every day deep in messy coding with Mathematica working on a few different projects in parallel - this is parallel processing of the inefficient variety. Still, they seem to be getting there and I'll be running code on multiple machines over the weekend.

As I was walking home today I was struck, as I always am on a Friday, by the strange weekend exodus from Santiago. The city has a population of around 100,000, around 20 percent of whom are students. I would guess that at least 95% of the students here are from nearby towns and villages and still have strong connections to their homes. On a Thursday night and Friday throughout the day, lines of students can be seen, making their way to the train and bus stations to go home to their parent's houses in the country. I can't help but feel strange when I see this; the idea of university and independence are simply so far removed here from such ideas in England. At university in England the independence that university affords is one of the great benefits, and weekends that can be spent with newfound friends are a large part of this side of life. The idea of going home every weekend to spend time with your family so that your parents can cook and clean for you (frequently, so I hear, supplying several days' food for the students when they come back on Sunday night), is a strange one and I can't help but feel that such a continuous dependency on parents causes students to be less 'worldly' in a rather abstract sense, than their counterparts in other countries where home ties are loosened at a younger age. Note that this is not to equate the number of drunken weekends with maturity, but simply that such strong ties to home (as opposed to family) were rather alien to me at that age.

I write this simply because whenever I see the students heading home with their small suitcases, I can't help but feel a certain sadness. Students should be out, getting away from home, seeing the world and experiencing the highs and lows of life alone, making and breaking friendships and making the mistakes which we all make which turn us from children into adults.

Living in different cultures is not only about observing the differences in lifestyles and values, but trying to understand them so I'd be interested to know the opinion of anyone who takes part in this weekend exodus.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Herschel and Planck on the up and up

I'm absolutely snowed under with coding at the moment, but I'll be keeping an eye on the launch of Planck and Herschel this afternoon. Take a look at the brief overview from Asymptotia and Backreaction as to why this is one of the most important launches of all time.

It seems the launch can be watched from here.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Green flashes in Spain are taken mainly from a plane

Today I spent a couple of hours walking around Barcelona before taking the flight back to Santiago this afternoon. I didn't have a chance to take any photos whilst there but I took a couple on the flight from Santiago as the sun was setting. With a thin layer of clouds and an otherwise clear sky there was a fantastic series of green flashes as the sun disappeared. Turning around awkwardly in my seat, I tried to rest against the side of the plane to get a good picture. Somehow there has been a funny trick of the light, I presume an artifact of reflections in the double pane, but a couple of the photos came out nicely with a green flash. I think this is probably the best of them and is the best, if strangest, green flash photo I've yet taken:

green flash from a plane over Spain

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Barcelona on the fly

 All is well here in Barcelona where I've spent the last couple of days at a meeting between the Spanish heavy ion and AdS/CFT communities. It's been an intense two days where the talks have been excellent and I've had a good chance to speak to people from all around Spain about various pieces of work. In particular it has been good to catch up with some current collaborators from Madrid with whom a project is currently ongoing.

I'll have a couple of hours of sightseeing tomorrow before taking the plane back to Santiago where I'll have a pile of projects to be getting on with. This weekend looks like a full working weekend so you may not hear much from me for a few days...we'll see...

Monday, May 04, 2009

Past improved - on getting there in Spanish

In September 2007 whilst still in Beijing I penned the fateful words:

I've just started learning Spanish while keeping up with the Chinese and I so look forward to the day that I can sit in a restaurant in Santiago de Compostela and talk with those around me naturally. I'm smiling now thinking of the first time I will be able to open up a Marquez and read the words in their untouched form.
In reality my attempts to learn Spanish while in China quickly sank without trace and I only started when I arrived here.

So, yesterday, I found myself in the main bookstore in the centre of Santiago, looking for some Hemmingway or Steinbeck that I had already read, translated into Spanish. I couldn't quite decide what to go for when "Cien años de soledad" caught my eye. I laughed to myself, wondering how much longer it would be until I was allowed to open the pages of such a book, but with nobody watching I took it off the shelf and started reading the first sentence...and the second, and the third. There was something rather confusing. I had expected code, something for which I would need a key which would only be bestowed on me when I 'knew' Spanish. In fact it was written in a language which I could follow, if not fluently, then certainly with a respectable comprehension. I decided to go for it and ditched the idea of buying my favourite American authors in their bastardised form. I went straight to a cafe, placed myself in the sun and dived in.

An hour, and some thirty pages later I put it down, tired, but happy. There are many words that I don't understand, but I have plenty to build an almost complete picture of what is happening. I'm also not reading it with a dictionary because I believe what you save in comprehension you lose in fluency and I'm understanding enough that picking up the dictionary several times every page will make the whole process more painful than it should be. I'm quickly learning that there are a few unknown words which recurr frequently and these can be looked up after the fact.

Today I plugged away for another hour and I'm enjoying it a great deal. It's going to take me a few weeks at this rate given that I only have time to read at the weekends (I usually read before sleeping but Marquez in Spanish requires my complete attention) but this has already given me a good confidence boost (which as a trend I find is usually followed by a big kick in the linguistic privates).

In addition to the Marquez, I've spent this evening with a couple of Spaniards who are friends of my current Portuguese couchsurfer. During our dinner we discussed string theory, the anthropic principle, our respective views on God and religion (I discover post facto that they are Jehovah's witnesses, though they absolutely didn't fit my stereotype), evolution and intelligent design, not to mention a brief foray into the unusual world of composting toilets, almost entirely in Spanish. This isn't to say that it was a perfectly fluent conversation but I'd like to think that they didn't leave more confused about the world due to my linguistic inabilities, but rather that they discovered a side of things which perhaps they hadn't considered before.

Anyway, so, this is where I am after learning Spanish for a year and a half. In the last year I've probably averaged about a lesson every three weeks as I'm usually too busy to organise or go to a class, but the amount of time I'm spending speaking Spanish has gone up considerably. I have a long, long way to go to get comfortable, and in particular I find that speaking in Spanish around my colleagues, with whom I've been speaking solely English for the time I've been here, is proving harder than I'd like.


Tomorrow I'm off to Barcelona for a meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday and will be back online in Santiago some time on Thursday. Until then...

Saturday, May 02, 2009

From Wolfram himself on Wolfram Alpha

A ten minute excerpt from the web demo a couple of days ago. Stephen Wolfram shows some examples of the soon to be released Wolfram Alpha.

As a random addition: I'm now taking an RSS feed of Lifehacker which has passed through Yahoo Pipes and removes a lot of the posts that I'm uninterested in. Can easily be altered to suit your own tastes. My personal feed is a little different from the one posted here. This just takes some trivial tinkering.